The Haitian Rape Epidemic

This weekend, The Guardian published a story about the Haitian epidemic of sexual assault. Until now, I had no idea about the extent of the problem. Reporter Alex Renton puts together an article that I found (for the most part) to be fascinating, horrifying, compassionate and multi-layered. I consider it a must-read.

We were there to find out what, in a place whose incessant violence has meant years of neglect by government and the aid agencies, can be done to tackle a scary Aids rate, coupled with a mind-boggling ignorance about the basics of sexual health. That meant talking about sex in Haiti, and that, we soon discovered, meant talking about rape – and why rape is so horrifyingly common.

According to the United Nations’ collation of research, almost half of all the girls in Cité Soleil and the country’s other ‘conflict-zone’ slums have been raped or subjected to other sexual violence. These figures compare with those that emerge from the wars in Congo and Darfur – but this is not a country at war. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas, but it has a functioning democratic government, courts, police and a free press, all assisted by a three-year-old United Nations stabilisation mission that has been widely hailed as a success.

If the UN’s figures are correct, there could be some 80,000 young women in Cité Soleil – a suburb smaller than Croydon – who have been sexually assaulted. What could turn a population to such voracious and cruel abuse of itself? Annacius Duportal, an aid worker funded by Oxfam who looks after HIV-positive women in the slums, told me the answer is simple – that the stripping of the plane and the high incidence of rape were caused by the same thing. Not culture, not tradition, but poverty. ‘It is the source of all this. Poverty stops these young people from using their abilities, from fulfilling their promise. It compromises their sexuality, it forces the young women to use their sexuality so they can get money and assistance from the young men. And that has meant those who steal property seem to think it’s also acceptable to steal women.’

The obvious question, of course, is “why.”

Why is there so much rape? Rosemarie shrugs. The layout of the streets in Cité Soleil, the lack of electricity and street lighting, make the place dangerous for women. Women have to walk in the dark to get water and food. Lack of education and most important, lack of jobs. Ninety-five per cent of the young people in Cité Soleil are unemployed. ‘And the young men who are unemployed are often in gangs.’

The slums of Port-au-Prince and other Haitian cities are indeed dominated by gangs – in Cité Soleil, between 2004 and the beginning of 2007, gangs were the only authority. And the gangs do indeed use rape as a tool in their control of their districts. Some, according to a report on armed violence and women in Haiti produced for the United Nations in 2006, exist in order to rape. The report’s author, Wiza Loutis, identified teenage groups like the Vagabonds and the Chimères whose principal activity is gang-rape of young girls and adolescent women.

She found groups of older men, the Bandits, who use rape as a means to intimidate and control the local population, to punish women who will not sleep with them, or as a means of extorting money. Other reports talk of the Cannibal Armies, a pro-Aristide paramilitary group who carried out rape for political reasons. These gangs are not all male, either. Loutis writes of organised groups of adolescent lesbians who carry out rapes of young women, sometimes acting in concert with the male gangs.

I have always believed that rape is a social problem, not a personal one. It’s a hard thing to do, to justifiably vilify rapists and yet simultaneously recognize that the fact that such people exist only because of cultural factors. I strongly believe that with the few exceptions of people who suffer from severe forms of psychosis, rapists are made, not born. I think that the increase in female-on-female sexual assault is testament to that, as are long-standing issues like rape as a war tool.

What I’m trying to get at is that it can be difficult to condemn systematic rape without seeming as though you are also making racist judgments about an entire population. And it can also be difficult to defend a population of men as not inherently evil without seeming as though you are forgiving the unforgivable actions that many of them take. This is why I often find it hard to write about these forms of atrocities (Darfur, Congo, etc.). The stories of the victims need to be told. But to add insult to injury, their stories are also commonly used as despicable racist fodder that only serves to provide more reasons to ignore the problem all together. I would never want to be involved in that or with anyone who is, and its a damn shame that the phenomenon can be so easy to perpetuate and exists to such a point that I would have to worry about it.

Renton briefly takes on the difficult task of trying to reconcile what he sees and knows to be true with his belief that he could never personally rape. When he says “I don’t believe that I am – as conventional feminist thinking has it – a potential rapist,” I do think that he has over-simplified our point. I also think that the descriptions of Haitian male sexuality as “bizarre” and “disturbing,” even though the mentioned practices are clearly not in the best interest of sexual health, are both unfair and highly unnecessary. I would like to point out that these are aspects of Renton’s analysis that I certainly do take issue with and am disappointed that they had to sully an otherwise very good and important article.

I feel like there should be more to say. I also feel like, sometimes, a story does speak for itself.

I am interested, though, in your thoughts on both the problem and the article itself. So: what are they?

0 thoughts on “The Haitian Rape Epidemic

  1. Michelle

    Renton didn’t call them bizarre etc – he just quoted someone (a “French NGO” apparently) that did – and i guess they would be to the average Westerner who doesn’t do that kind of thing.

    Don’t fall into the trap of unnecessary deference and respect – you wouldn’t praise the Aztecs practice of human sacrifice and giving accceptance to Haitian males self mutilation of their genitals is equally unwise.

  2. AlexRenton

    Very glad you blogged my article – in 20 years of reporting from all over the world it was one of the most awful stories I have come across. All the worse, because noone seems to have any plan or notion of how to tackle it – unlike, say, in Bangladesh and India, where there are good and new ideas that seem to be having some impact on levels of violence against women.

    Of course you’re right to take me up on the issue of “bizarre” sexual practices among Haitian men. But do, please, read the article in its entirety: these practices are described and commented on by four people: two Western NGO workers, one female Haitian NGO worker and one Haitian man. They also reflect half a dozen other conversations I had in Haiti, with Haitians in sexual health work and human rights. I could not ignore it. If there is an epidemic of rape in Haiti, then the fact that aberrant or violent sexual behaviour is more common than normal in the country is an aspect that has to be addressed, however that may make liberal Western cultural relativists (a movement to which I’m proud to belong!).

    Haiti has two huge problems – HIV/AIDS and violence against women – that, statistically, make it stand out from every other country in the Caribbean – in the hemisphere. It would be wrong to ignore the roles in thes problems of issues like a predilection for violent sex, self mutilation, general ignorance of sexual health issues, lack of policing, low regard for the status and rights of women, lack of employment for both sexes, poverty – since these are also unusually chronic in the country.

    As Professor Joanna Bourke told me – to paraphrase – rape is social and environmental and cultural – and all aspects of it, particularly the sexual, have to be understood if levels of rape against women are to be lowered. This is controversial, and her new book on rape (do read it – here’s an article) will annoy many traditional feminists, but I think the Haitian crisis bears out much of what she has to say.

  3. Cara Post author

    Don’t fall into the trap of unnecessary deference and respect – you wouldn’t praise the Aztecs practice of human sacrifice and giving accceptance to Haitian males self mutilation of their genitals is equally unwise.

    I never argued that it wasn’t unwise, Michelle. In fact, I pointed out that it was from a health standpoint. I just have no fucking clue what it has to do with the rape epidemic, and I imagine that it’s very little. It seems to me that by conflating a sexual act that we would find to be odd with rape is to insult all of those who partake in the practice but are not rapists. It’s not the same as condoning rape, since there was no mention of genital cutting being part of some sort of raping ritual.

    A comparison: an article about the problem of rape in America — and it is a problem — talking about victims, about rapists, about rape culture, about how and why rape is condoned. And then the sentence “American men have many strange sexual habits — it’s common to engage in anal sex.” What the fuck does that have to do with anything? There’s a big difference from talking about things that directly condone sexual violence, like violent porn for instance, or the habit of many men to try to coerce women into anal sex, and a sexual act that many people engage in and enjoy consensually. I don’t think that discussing the topic of rape is an excuse to shame people out of “odd” but unrelated sexual practices.

    Alex, thanks for commenting. I do intend to read Bourke’s book, though I hadn’t heard your suggestions about it clashing with feminist ideas. I certainly do think that sexual cultures play a role in the prevalence of rape, but that’s probably because sexual cultures are generally linked to the greater culture as a whole. For example, I think that the fact that sex is so often viewed as “conquest” in the West cannot be ignored as a social attitude that encourages rape. I don’t think that most feminists ignore this when they say that rape is about “power” — it still is. It’s not about men being so horny that they can’t control themselves. It’s about men growing up in a culture that tells them when that when they get horny, they shouldn’t have to control themselves. It’s about social expectations regarding sex, a desire to fit cultural notions of masculinity, and a disregard for women. And all of those things are about power.

    It would be wrong to ignore the roles in thes problems of issues like a predilection for violent sex, self mutilation, general ignorance of sexual health issues, lack of policing, low regard for the status and rights of women, lack of employment for both sexes, poverty – since these are also unusually chronic in the country.

    I agree with you on nearly every point, here. I think that the self-mutilation could have warranted mention for many reasons. Examples: if it was a part of some raping ritual, if it was part of initiation into gangs, if it was believed to be contributing to the spread of HIV. I didn’t gather that from the article, though. There is the vague phrase “health problems,” but the main emphasis to me seems to be on the “weirdness.” In addition, one of those you quote as talking about sexual practices as being “bizarre to the point of disturbing” is admitted to being Italian, not Haitian.

    I thank you for writing the article. It taught me a lot and I think that it’s a story that needs to be told. I also don’t think that we can ignore our propensity as human beings towards making harmful and unfair judgments against those we are trying to help.


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